October 22

Am I Pretty?

October 22, 2012

Parenting

Mark told me that in the previous week his daughter Sarah had brought home copies of her yearly school photos. I was surprised to learn that this tradition has now apparently endured longer than most nations on earth. Sarah burst into tears and said that she wanted "the retakes"—an opportunity for those who are unhappy with their pictures to have another photo session. When I was young, there were no retakes, and I am certain that this lamentable absence is the prime reason for my reputation as an exceptionally homely child.

But I digress. Back to Sarah. Rarely do we say what our children need, because we hear their WORDS, rather than the actual MEANING of what they're saying. Was Sarah talking about "retakes?" No, she was simply saying that in her opinion the photos revealed her true ugliness, and she was also asking her father, Am I pretty?

Oh, what a superficial world we have created, where every book IS judged by its cover, where the value of people and things are determined by completely arbitrary standards of beauty. Beautiful women marry sooner and to men who make more money, they make more money themselves, they are promoted faster, and so on. To a lesser degree, these same phenomena are seen with men who are judged to be handsome. How silly we look as we make such judgments of other human beings, but nonetheless we do make them, and consistently so. Oddly, I counsel many such women—women who would be judged as physically flawless by others—and despite their apparent advantages, overall they are NOT happier than average women.

Mark actually listened to what his daughter was saying, so he responded by throwing his arms around her, picking her up, and setting her in his lap. Continuing to hold her, he said, "My dear, you are gorgeous—both inside and out. When you walk by, the flowers hang their heads slightly in embarrassment, the birds sing more brightly, and smiles break out on the faces of anybody who sees you. You are welcome to do the retakes if you wish, but no picture will ever show anyone the combination of your inner and outer beauty."

Mark continued, "Now, it's true that there are people in the world who would not see you as I do. They can ALWAYS find something they don't like—an imperfect nose, a crooked tooth, a chin too large or small—but such people find something wrong with everything. And such people will never see who you really are, nor will they ever really be able to love you. So if they can't love you, why would you care what they think of you?"

I have seen many parents respond to similar questions from a child, spoken or implied. It certainly was not intentional, but many of these parents paused—ever so slightly—as though ascertaining the worth of a painting. Even if their response was overall positive, the instant the parent paused, they validated the world's opinion that a child's worth—that anybody's worth—is dependent to any degree on their physical appearance.

Many adults have asked me, "But what can you say to a child who IS NOT beautiful?" I weep to hear such a question, but it must be answered. There simply is no ugly child. Period. And every child must be assured of that truth, and never have doubts placed in their minds that they might fall short of some physical standard created and imposed by superficial and blind adults.

The evening of the event described above, Sarah listed several reasons for a possible retake: Her glasses were a little crooked on her nose, it looked like she was squinting, and so on. Mark repeated a version of what he had said the first time, but also repeated that she could have a retake if she wished.

Two days later, Sarah spontaneously sat on Mark's lap and threw her arms around his neck. "I'm not doing the retakes, Daddy. I'm glad you think I'm beautiful." And off she ran, to do whatever beautiful girls do.

We have learned to measure microscopic objects to an accuracy that was unthinkable only a few decades ago. We have turned our telescopes to the heavens and discovered a beauty that makes our previous understanding look like a flat, black-and-white painting. And yet we still judge people for the slightest variation of a nose or smile or body type from a standard that no one could objectively defend as better than any other. It is to be hoped that we will become wiser and appreciate both the physical and emotional beauty that we all possess, in our own unique ways.

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